Comment: talking about sustainability

Ali Spencer2

The need for integrity and transparency in food systems and authentication of food, tackling food waste, improving labelling and buying locally, were all recurring topics at the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers Sustainability conference at the Sargood Centre in  Dunedin’s Logan Park in early November, reports Ali Spencer.

A range of excellent and interesting speakers covered various aspects of sustainability for the food industry and were on hand for discussion with some of this country’s top food writers. There was plenty to absorb, but here are my takeouts for the meat sector:

  • We’re moving into a new era for global food systems, believes Professor Hugh Campbell of the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability. His lecture covered the future of food politics and suggested that we are moving from an unsustainable trading environment, developed after WWII to fit the demands of that time, into a major new trading phase. “The existing global scale toolkit – such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks and the Trans-Pacific-Partnership – isn’t working any more,” he argues, adding that nations now need to have resilience to survive shocks and to find solutions locally.
  • A “whole new social movement” is mobilising towards attitudes to food including the Slow Food movement, farmers markets, a move to food literacy – people reading and understanding food labels – ‘dumpster diving’ and urban and guerrilla gardening, commented Campbell. All of those movements do not require people to make significant sacrifices now to allow some future good, he noted.
  • Buying locally doesn’t necessarily mean food is sustainable, however, said Barry Law of the Sustainability Company (NZ) Ltd, pointing to the Lincoln University research that showed New Zealand lamb had a smaller greenhouse gas footprint than Britain’s, even though it’s shipped further. He maintains being sustainable is profitable and his firm helps companies to implement sustainable practice and behaviour change.
  • There’s a new layering for business, that incorporates integrity, authenticity and transparency, Law said, adding with the pressures on food production and business, sustainable practice is the catalyst for change. “This is an opportunity for New Zealand that hasn’t been capitalised upon,” he believes.
  • Law pointed to the rise of the “socially conscious consumer, using power to effect change,” and it’s young women, under 40, and their use of social media that is driving that change.
  • Clean green: best and worst thing – Campbell echoed Law’s comments, saying that ”the best thing going for New Zealand’s export industry is our clean green image: an absolute free gift from wherever our export markets are for our ability to position quality, sustainable, green,healthy products in international markets.  However, the worst thing going for NZ as an export country is also the clean green image. “It exposes us to horrendous authenticity risk and when it backfires on us, it backfires horribly. My understanding of the future for our food export industry is the ability is to somehow translate aspirational, or marketing claim, into reality.”
  • The importance of product integrity and supply chain traceability was underlined by Helen Darling, founder of Oritain Global Ltd. She talked about food authentication, food fraud and food exports and explained the complex world of food exporting and trade. She believes that New Zealand needs to take a leadership role with regards to food integrity and, more recently, was involved with a three day Global Food Safety Forum, which saw 200 delegates arrive in New Zealand in mid-November from China and the US among other countries.
  • The global movement to cut down on food waste was covered by Dr Miranda Mirosa from Otago University’s Department of Food Science. She recommended viewing Tristram Stuart’s TedTalk on the ‘Global food waste scandal‘ and reading a new 2013 report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers ‘Global food: waste not, want not”, which has calculated that 30-50 percent of all food produced in the world is not eaten and is wasted. Another resource is the UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Mirosa pointed to the EU which has made 2014 the European Year of Food Waste and will see education programmes for consumers and in schools. It’s an issue that won’t be going away.
  • University of Otago nutrition specialist Professor Jim Mann noted that from a nutritional point of view, obesity remedies are also sustainability remedies. “A good thing for sustainability would be eating a little bit less.”
  • He also suggested that a clear definition of what is meant by sustainability by the food industry is needed and would aid discussion.
  • Showing how it’s done in the meat industry – Sharon Angus, general manager marketing for Silver Fern Farms, told about how the $2 billion turnover company is moving to a ‘consumer-pulled’ not production-driven organisation. She explained the new ‘Plate to Pasture’ strategy, underpinned by work done by FarmIQ, which aims to match consumer demand to the meat its suppliers produce. Her slick presentation about the development of the ‘Silver Fern Farms’ brand showed how the export meat company is reacting to the rising demand for protein, traceability, the move ‘back to nature’ requirements for ingredients, ‘less is more’ – smaller, better quality portions – and the return to the craft of cooking. She also noted the diverse channels that consumers can now go to online to get information and buy products. In addition, Angus introduced Silver Fern Farms‘ new Eating Quality Master Grading System.

Delegates also learned about permaculture from the ‘Barefoot Gardener’ Jon Foote of BFG Consulting, Dunedin, about a sustainable living course now available in Dunedin from Dunedin City Council’s Maureen Howard, sustainability of fisheries both in New Zealand and globally from Pamela Mace, principal adviser fisheries science for the Ministry of Primary Industries and the new health claims legislation from Plant & Food’s Carolyn Lister. Former Green MP and safe food campaigner Sue Kedgely and Steve Anderson South Island chief executive of the wholly NZ-owned Foodstuffs also joined the panel discussion, chaired by Hugh Campbell, on the first day. Other participants were Jim Mann and Jon Foote.

Otago Polytechnic catering students did themselves very proud catering and serving the event. Very well done to them all.


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